Listening to the Latinx voice to address disparities during the novel coronavirus pandemic

To learn about the needs of the state’s youth during these challenging times, MSU Extension hosted listening sessions. Two of the sessions were conducted in Spanish, in an effort to hear directly from Latinx parents about their educational needs.

A group of Latinx youth in 4-H apparel.
Photo credit: National 4-H Council

Due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, Michigan communities have experienced many changes since March 2020. In an effort to learn about the needs of the state’s youth during these challenging times, Michigan State University Extension hosted a series of listening sessions. Two of the 23 sessions were conducted in Spanish, in an effort to hear directly from Latinx parents about their educational needs during the pandemic. 

Background of participants

Participants: 48 parents and caregivers of youth ages 5-18 participated in the two Spanish language listening sessions held in June 2020. 

Demographic information: participants represented Latinx families in Kent County and are from the following  zip codes: 49548, 49509, 49507, 49504, 49519, 49503 and 49301. Data from the Access Kent website shows that 33.8 percent of the population in Kent County is Latinx. There are six Kent County zip codes with a large Latinx population who have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.

School districts represented by participants: Grand Rapids Public Schools including Lincoln Developmental School, Godfrey-Lee Public Schools, Wyoming Public Schools, Godwin Public Schools, Kelloggsville Public Schools, Forest Hills Public Schools, Kentwood Public Schools, La Escuelita (collaboration with Early Learning Neighborhood Collaborative, San Juan Diego Academy and Hispanic Center of Western Michigan), Vanguard Charter Academy, New Branches Charter Academy and Diocese of Grand Rapids Catholic Schools.

Listening session process

To facilitate the Spanish language listening sessions, a team of Spanish-speaking staff was recruited from several MSU departments, including MSU Extension, the Julian Samora Research Institute and the Migrant Student Services program. 

Promotional material was translated into Spanish with assistance from  the Hispanic Center of Western Michigan. A Spanish video was created by MSU Extension Kent County 4-H Urban Program Coordinator Veronica Quintino-Aranda, explaining the purpose of the listening sessions and how to register. Community partners in Kent County helped promote and recruit participants for the listening sessions by sharing the information with their respective networks. A driving factor throughout the process was building relationships and trust with the Latinx participants and community partners.

During the registration process, it was discovered that most parents were not familiar with using the Zoom meeting platform. Quintino-Aranda assisted the parents/caregivers with downloading the app on their phone and practiced logging into the call before the listening sessions. Quintino-Aranda also identified youth or teens in the home that could provide additional support on the day of the listening session. 

In workplaces, it is crucial that there are staff that understand and are part of the communities they serve. Having staff that speak the language and understand the barriers communities face daily is essential to relevant program delivery. 

Key identified lessons

When programming within the Latinx community, the listening sessions revealed several key lessons, including identifying innovative ways for creative teaching with children and youth under the new social distancing guidelines. Key themes most commonly mentioned by participants included: 

Reading, writing and Spanish language needs.

Parents/caregivers mentioned language barriers often exist, citing parent teacher meetings and conferences that are all in English as one key example. By providing engagement opportunities solely in English, parents/caregivers find it difficult to engage with the school and improve parent/school communication and relationships. Material sent home from the school, including homework, infographics and videos, should also be in Spanish.

Hands-on/learning activities and Spanish language needs.

Parents/caregivers expressed the concern for limiting screen time. Offering activities such as community gardens, baking and cooking classes, music and drawing classes and art projects can offer a hands-on opportunity for youth to engage in an experiential way. Participants also expressed a need for youth to spend time with nature through outdoor learning experiences. Participants identified interest in winter and summer outdoor activities, including camping, engaging in community service activities, recreational entertainment, field trips, and sports including soccer.

Social family connection/cultural awareness.

The desire for opportunities to spend time as a family were mentioned. Latinx parents/caregivers mentioned a need to explore and identify their culture identity as a family. Participants were interested in lesson plans that included a more colored history and exploring cultural awareness through cooking family recipes together and story sharing that allowed for an expression of their culture and embracing their roots. 

Access to technology.

Parents stated limited technology access and devices in the home as a difficulty to appropriately complete online learning opportunities. Participants requested classes about how to use the internet, computers and software (such as Zoom) be offered to allow them to be more engaged in the education of their children. 

Help for parents/caregivers.

Participants suggested an orientation to online learning be offered as a support so that they could assist their children with online classes. This also included classes/programming to help parents learn English as a second language. 

In addition, parents with students new to the educational system identified the need for more support. Parents of high schoolers also expressed a need for more information on financial aid and scholarship information.

Parents/caregivers discussed that during this pandemic, they are the teachers for their children. When they try to assist their children with homework, language continues to be a barrier, as well as understanding the various different teaching methods. Parents/caregivers expressed frustration that although they may know a particular answer to a problem or question, the way that the student may need to answer is not the way the parent may have learned it. 

Mental health.

Fear of family separation was a big stressor that was reported by the Latinx participants. Examples of identified stressors included: deportation concerns (i.e. being pulled over in a traffic stop or U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement showing up at a place of employment) and an increase in bullying among youth in the local community. Participants identified an increase in need for counseling support services as one option for assisting with these concerns.

Special needs students.

Participants who identified as parents/caregivers of children with special needs stated a need for an increased amount of emotional support; they did not feel acceptance when engaging in community events. Some participants shared that due to the low immune system of children and youth with special needs, some parents have opted to not engage in programming and services which decreases respite opportunities for parents.

Implications for practitioners 

As the pandemic continues, ensuring that all Michigan families have their needs met is a high priority. Latinx families identified several barriers such as transportation, food security, applying for unemployment benefits, eligibility for stimulus funds and housing. They also indicated a lack of proper identification prohibited some parents from participating or engaging in school field trips or other school activities. 

Another common concern throughout the Spanish listening sessions was a need for increased funding for school districts with Black, Indigenous and children and youth of color (BIPOC). This would allow for more sports, field trips and programming for children and youth to explore their talents, skills and leadership abilities. Parents mentioned teachers do not understand the needs of the community. Another request was including the history of marginalized minority groups in the school curriculum. 

Participants revealed several key suggestions for agency partners interested in supporting Latinx families: 

Reading, writing and Spanish language needs and help for parents.

The biggest barrier Latinx participants identified when attempting to be engaged in their children's education was language. Attendees recommended hiring additional staff that speak the Spanish language to help address questions and understand the barriers and needs of the community. Staff that speak the language and understand the daily community challenges was essential to relevant program delivery. Parents shared experiences with some teachers who have problems with immigration status and do not have the cultural understanding. Attendees recommended hiring additional staff that speak the Spanish language to help address questions and understand the barriers and needs of the community, as well as answering questions about the program. Participants also identified more check-ins with parents and building an awareness of language barriers as additional needs. 

There was also an expressed need for translating documents (promotional, registration and educational) into the different languages spoken at home. Collaborations with community partners who are already providing the services and resources in the languages parents request would provide a crucial support. The services could include interpretation and translation services, among other needs.

Creative learning and social family connection.

Some families reported they do not have equitable access to computers and technology. As a result, participants identified paper and hands-on activities as preferred delivery options. One creative suggestion provided by parents/caregivers was to create activity kits with each lesson plan, followed- by a check-in with students to present their final projects.

Inadequate internet access/technology.

For parents/caregivers with early childhood students with technological literacy issues, providing a class or session on the internet and using the computer was identified as a need. Participants reported confusion around navigating the various programs and platforms offered; multilingual technology support would be of great assistance to families. For example, one participant mentioned he enjoyed learning how to use Zoom by participating in the Spanish speaking listening sessions and that he would use Zoom again, provided the opportunity and community resources. These classes should be offered at a time that fits with the parents/guardian work schedule. 

Connectivity enhancements.

Another barrier preventing parents from engaging via the internet was the lack of WIFI access or devices in the home. Offering increased unlimited hotspots within neighborhoods and devices for students was identified as suggestions by parents/caregivers. 

Mental health.

Parents supported including mental health services in the community that targeted children and youth.  

More information

For more information on the Spanish listening sessions, please contact Veronica Quintino-Aranda at For more information on the English listening sessions, view the “MSU Extension children and youth listening sessions background and summary” article.  To review the differences and similarities between the English language and Spanish language speaking sessions, view the companion article in either English or Spanish.

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